American Fable is ambitious, maybe too much so sometimes, but there's an intense pleasure in the boldness of the film's style.
"Hesher" assembles a group of characters who aren't sure why they're in the same movie together. One by one, they have an attraction, but brought together, they're all elbows and angles. The title character (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is hauled into the movie as a classic deus ex machina, as if he's been lowered by rope into the middle of a situation he has no connection with. He's a fearsome heavy metal creature with charming tattoos: on his back, an upraised middle finger, and on the chest, a man shooting his brains out.
Hesher materializes in the life of young T.J. (Devin Brochu) and moves into T.J.'s house. The film makes no attempt to explain much about who he is, where he came from, or precisely what he thinks about T.J.'s family. At first he seems possibly an imaginary friend for the kid, but then we realize he's quite real, all right. Just inexplicable.
T.J.'s family is desolate. His mother was killed not long ago in an automobile accident. His father, Paul (Rainn Wilson), sits stunned by depression on the sofa, staring at the TV by default, not even really seeing it. His grandmother, Madeleine (Piper Laurie), drifts on a cloud of vagueness through their lives, feeding them out of lifelong habit, not asserting herself, asking no questions even when T.J. brings Hesher home for dinner. Well, Hesher essentially brings himself along, but is explained as T.J.'s "friend." How has a 10-year-old acquired a friend who resembles a wasted rocker? Well, you might ask, but Paul and Madeleine accept him in their sloughs of passivity.
It's not as if Hesher is really a sweet guy. He's willful, obscene, offensive and easily angered; the tattoo covering his back must have been chosen after careful consideration. He sets up a camp in the family garage and parks his van in front, from which often pounds heavy metal at full volume. Hesher is not someone you want in your garage.